For some reason, Florida doesn’t have the most exciting reputation as a travel destination. I never really understand why — the weather is amazing, natural wonders abound, and there are some pretty fantastic cities dotting those endless coastlines. Over two and a half weeks this January, I’d discover even more reasons to get excited about the Sunshine State, a place I return to over and over again thanks to the friends and family I have scattered across the peninsula.
I was thrilled when I found a cheap, convenient flight from New Orleans to Orlando on my favorite domestic airline, Southwest. Thanks to the frequent flyer points I racked up through their credit card sign up bonus, it was the first of many free flights I’ll be taking around the US this year!
Lucky for me, one of my favorite Florida residents lives within easy driving distance of Orlando — and she’s also got the job flexibility to come join me for a mid-week getaway. Last March, I couldn’t believe what a magical time I had at Dineyland using some my generous Dad’s Disney Vacation Club points. So this year, I asked if I could use a few more to check out a resort I’ve been strangely obsessed with for years — Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge.
Landing late at Orlando International Airport and hopping on a free shuttle to the Disney complex, I fell fast asleep, ready to burst awake the next morning and explore.
When Angie arrived I was giddily exploring, Kidani Village, the all-suite complex built specifically for Disney Vacation Club members. Though I’d read online that the neighboring Jambo House complex had slighter better facilities, we definitely appreciated the extra spacious quarters available at Kidani Village (which was all that was available for the busy post-holiday season by the time I booked.)
I mean, check out these digs! Though listed as a one bedroom villa, this room could actually comfortably sleep five thanks to a pull-out couch for two and a pull-out daybed for one in the living room. And with a huge master bath and an additional full bath off the living room, you could easily cram a rambunctious family inside.
That said, we were pretty happy it was just us girls.
Believe me, this jacuzzi tub in the master bath did not go unappreciated. I enjoyed a soak my first night, and Angie’s little sister Rae jumped in when she dropped by later in the week for a slumber party.
Mostly, though, it was all about the balconies — I wasn’t going to go if I couldn’t nab a savannah facing room. The novelty of waking up, flinging open the curtains and seeing if there was a pair of giraffes, a bunch of antelopes or a herd of zebras in my sightline did not ebb.
Though we were well into January, Christmas was still alive at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. Impressed as always by the creativity shown by the Disney Imagineers, I decided to take the free “African Inspired, Disney Designed” tour, one of dozens of entertainment options on offer at the lodge — many of which, including an weekly African wine tasting, were adult-focused.
Both my lovely South African guide and I were surprised to find I was the only one on the tour, but over the next hour I got lost in the amazing stories of how the art and culture of various tribes through Africa inspired the smallest details in the hotel. I couldn’t help but think how most of them would be overlooked by the majority of guests. But Disney did it anyway, and I think that’s what makes them special.
I also loved learning about the outreach program specific to Animal Kingdom lodge which brings young men and women from the African continent, mostly South Africa, to work in the lodges as game keepers, safari guides, receptionists, restaurant staff, and overall cultural ambassadors.
It really was a fun touch to get to chat to so many young people from Africa over my three nights at the lodge, all of them as enthusiastic about the opportunity as my friend Lindsay was about her own work with Disney.
After much mulling over, Angie and I decided not to go to the Animal Kingdom Theme Park. I kind of regret it now. But at the time, the price — almost $100 — seemed overwhelming, and Angie’s cousin who works in the park told us that they were reaching capacity every day of the week, meaning lines would be long and the park would be crazy crowded.
Luckily there was plenty to entertain us on-site, like two lovely pools and several January-appropriate jacuzzis.
If we had a complaint, it was an obvious one — the prices were insane. Luckily we had a full kitchen in our suite and I used it to make my own breakfast every morning, but I almost choked one day when an afternoon snack of a few clementines and a Diet Coke came to $7.
Still, we wanted to get the full Animal Kingdom Lodge experience, and so we decided to try out one of the three highly-rated onsite restaurants. Jiko and Boma were both tempting, but Sanaa won out for being right in Kidani Village — the other two were a chilly evening stroll away in Jambo House. I do admit that I lost my temper when trying to call from our room and make a reservation, a task which apparently requires your credit card, billing address, your mother’s maiden name and the serial code on your birth certificate. Finally frustrated enough to slam down the phone, we simply strolled the five minutes from our room and waited all of two minutes for a table. Maybe we just got lucky, but we gave a serious eye-roll to the reservations push from there forward.
Sanaa is an African-Indian fusion restaurant, and I fell in love with the interiors and the savannah views during my tour. We returned for dinner, but in retrospect I’d suggest trying to hit the restaurant for lunch in order to take advantage of those front row savannah seats.
Feeling adventurous — and cheap — we decided to split a bunch of appetizers and sides. Still, we managed to over-order, ending up with a nan service, an appetizer sampler that included lamb kefka sliders and potato and pea samosas, and a salad sampler that included exotic options like bhel puri — whatever the hell that is. And, of course, order a wine flight each. Despite splitting what was essentially three appetizers and one drink, it was still a pricey meal at $40 — but I felt well worth it for the experience.
The next night, we headed to Downtown Disney for dinner, a movie, and some evening strolling. Long story short? We were disappointed. The fancy dine-in movie theater was a mess, and the entire complex felt like a construction site.
As we checked out of Disney the next morning, I turned to Angie and confessed that while I’d loved the hotel, I felt like some of the magic was missing from our overall Disney experience. She confessed to feeling the same. Compared to my Disneyland weekend in California, this was a bit of a letdown. I’d loved the compact size of Disneyland — we parked once and never returned to the car until it was time to go, easily walking between the parks, Downtown Disney, and our hotel. Here, Downtown Disney was a dump, we had to drive everywhere through the sprawling Disney complex, and though I don’t have direct comparisons to back this up, I felt like things were more expensive. From the airport check-in to the hotel check-out, things seemed a little less polished, a little more tired, a little less magic.
I wonder how much of my meh feeling was compounded by not going into the Animal Kingdom park — I’m sure that would have given the trip a more cohesive feeling. Alas, perhaps I’ll return someday to find out. But in the meantime, Disneyland might just be more my jam!
Still, we had one more Orlando stop to make before hitting the road back to Angie’s native Jacksonville.
The Orth family is well-entrenched at Universal Studios — Angie’s done PR for them throughout her career, and Rae is currently on the payroll. That made this visit extra fun. I loved hearing behind-the-scenes stories from both sisters as we strolled through the theme park.
One thing I learned? I’m fairly Universal illiterate, having to admit sheepishly over and over again that I hadn’t seen the movies or TV shows that most of the rides were based on. Including, much to Angie’s horror and heartbreak, Harry Potter. I was a huge Seuss Landing fan, however.
Despite my complete disinterest in the fantasy genre, I had to admit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter lived up the hype. I was in awe of all the details Angie pointed out to me, and butterbeer ice cream? Worth a trip to Orlando alone.
And though we didn’t have time to properly explore, I was wowed by Universal’s CityWalk — it was everything I had been looking for from Downtown Disney, and more. I will definitely be returning there for my evening entertainment next time I’m in Orlando, thank you very much.
And then we were on our way to Jacksonville. I was excited to explore a new city for the first time, but we were foiled by the lowest temperatures of the year — it snowed, guys! But my two nights there were not for naught — I met my dear friend’s sweet soon-to-be fiancé, toured Angie Away Base Camp, and spent time with even more members of the Orth clan and crew.
I will be back someday to see Jacksonville for real. Thanks for having me, Miss Angie!
And with that, I was soon off again. Stay tuned for Tampa!